DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Howard Ashman wrote the words to some of the classic Disney songs. He was the lyricist behind three classic Disney songbooks as well as "Little Shop Of Horrors." But his career was cut short when he died of AIDS in 1991. Composer Alan Menken had worked closely with Ashman, and now a new documentary film has given him one last chance to collaborate with his late friend. Tim Greiving has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRINCE ALI")
ROBIN WILLIAMS: (Singing) Prince Ali, amorous he - Ali Ababwa...
TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Alan Menken wrote this song at Howard Ashman's hospital bed while his friend was dying.
ALAN MENKEN: His life was pitifully cut short. But as an artist, he's extremely vital even now.
GREIVING: They met in New York in the 1970s, where Ashman was running a black box theater. They gelled like Rodgers and Hammerstein and wrote the musicals "Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" and the unlikely hit "Little Shop Of Horrors."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, singing) Little shop, Little shop of horrors - bop sho'bop (ph)...
GREIVING: Pretty soon, Ashman was courted by Jeffrey Katzenberg to come to Disney and help an animation department that was on the skids.
DON HAHN: I have a letter that I found in the Library of Congress, and it's a letter from Jeffrey Katzenberg.
GREIVING: Don Hahn, a producer on "Beauty And The Beast," directed the new documentary, "Howard."
HAHN: It says, Howard, thanks for talking the other day. There's so many things we want you to work on. We'd love you to work on a "Arabian Nights" story. We'd love you to work on "Little Mermaid." And Jeffrey ends up saying the collaboration of Howard Ashman and Walt Disney is, you know, just a hit waiting to happen.
GREIVING: It sure was. Ashman and Menken brought a vibrant Broadway sensibility to Disney animation and it led to a lucrative renaissance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST")
ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) Beauty and the Beast...
GREIVING: Ashman died before he finished "Aladdin" and even before "Beauty And The Beast" premiered. He was only 40. The documentary tracks his rise from a theater-obsessed kid in Baltimore to his musical highs to his untimely death, told through archival footage of recording sessions, song demos, new interviews with family and friends and Ashman explaining his own philosophies.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOWARD")
HOWARD ASHMAN: You get to a certain point where the crab has to convince the mermaid not to go up above the water and change her life, so he has to sing "Under The Sea." And she has to sing "Part Of Your World" 'cause she wants to go up to dry land so badly.
GREIVING: Over the years, Alan Menken has worked unused songs from the Disney animated musicals into their Broadway adaptations. So in a way, he's never stopped working with Howard Ashman.
MENKEN: I wrote a song right after Howard passed. It went, (singing) my old friend, da-da-da da-da-da da-da da-da (ph). When Tim Rice and I began work on the Broadway adaptation of "Beauty And The Beast," I said I'm going to take that piece of music and - (singing) is this home? Is this where I should learn to be happy?
So that became part of the fabric of "Beauty And The Beast."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")
SUSAN EGAN: (As Belle, singing) ...I should stay here forever, held in this empty space.
GREIVING: Menken shared his memories for the documentary. When Don Hahn sent him a rough cut, he told the director he had to write the score.
MENKEN: Oh, my God, was it a labor of love. I feel deeply connected to Howard, and I just felt that I wanted music that, if he was directing it, he would have wanted to put in there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN MENKEN COMPOSITION)
GREIVING: The composer says this was really like his final collaboration with Howard. Almost 30 years after he died, a new work with words by Ashman and tunes by Menken.
For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN MENKEN COMPOSITION)
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